By Daniel Skora
The streets of a city can be tougher than a war zone. In war, you generally know who the enemy is; on the streets, the enemy tends to look a lot like you. As Pogo once said so famously in the pages of the funny papers, “We have met the enemy, and they are us”. Which is why Gertie, a homeless veteran, carries around a baseball bat in her grocery cart as she trolls the streets every day looking for a safe spot to spend the night. You can often hear her mumbling what sounds like numbers, a countdown to the happy day, she will tell you, if you’re lucky enough to be one of the few she allows into her world.
“Countdown to the Happy Day”, by playwright Tom Stephens, closes out the 60th Anniversary Season of the Detroit Repertory Theatre in splendidly rewarding fashion. It’s a tightly drawn, emotional story of two people who find themselves on the short end of society’s stick. Gertie (Casaundra Freeman), who served in the desert war, is intelligent, righteous, and troubled. One day while making her way through the mean streets of the ghetto, she confronts the youthful Cervin (Calvin Biggs, Jr.), whom she accuses of stalking her. Cervin is fifteen years old and a grade school dropout. When not out prowling the streets himself looking for contraband, he resides in a ramshackle apartment with his mother, who is bedridden and very ill.
Cervin, apparently, is not a stalker at all. He’s been eyeing Gertie because she seems like someone who might be able to cook up a good meal for his mother with the pork chops he’s gotten a hold of (stolen?). Gertie agrees to do just that, partly because of the empathy she feels for the poor woman and partly because Cervin has given her a fresh, unsmoked Newport which she can later use as barter on the streets. What follows when the two arrive at the home of Cervin and his mother is a highly charged tug of war between a woman as wise as the hills are old and a manchild as lost as the sea is deep.
You can probably guess that some of Gertie and some of Cervin will undoubtedly rub off on each other when they’re thrown together in an atmosphere that reeks of failure and bad fortune. Survival is rarely a one-man proposition. But how that happens in Stephens’ engaging script and with the equally engaging performances of the play’s two cast members makes “Countdown to a Happy Day” a triumph, not only of the human spirit, but of the Rep’s passionate production.
Casaundra Freeman is the heart, the soul, and the joy of the production. All those adjectives that reviewers use about a performance, like brilliant, magnificent, fabulous, and marvelous, are not only applicable here, but are justly deserved. You’ll love her performance when Gertie’s being difficult and contentious, you’ll love her even more when you discover that Gertie is all too human.
Making his professional acting debut is Calvin Biggs Jr. as Cervin. Biggs shows that he can hold his own opposite the well-credentialed Freeman. Another first for this production has Sandra Love Aldridge making her profession directorial debut. A hit as the title character in the Rep’s recent “The Realization of Emily Linder”, “Countdown…” shows that Aldridge is hugely capable of putting it together behind the scenes. Set design and construction are by Harry Wetzel. Costume design is by Mary Copenhagen, lighting by Thomas Schraeder, and sound by Burr Huntington. Stage manager for the production is Leah Smith.
One of the reasons that live theatre remains a viable entertainment form even in this, the digital age, is that stories are best told with flesh and blood people. “Countdown to the Happy Day” contains characters that, though created by a writer’s imagination, could be both real and around us. And it features Freeman’s not-to-be-missed gem of a performance. Do go and see it.
The show runs through June 25th. Tickets for the show are available online as are several subscription packages that are good for a year from the date of purchase. Visit their site at www.DetroitRepTheatre.com for more information or email them at DetRepTh@aol.com. The Detroit Repertory Theatre is located at 13103 Woodrow Wilson in Detroit.